I wish I could talk about the economy with more knowledge, but I admit up front I cannot. I’m actually looking forward to the next week or two, when my business class transitions from marketing to economics; I’m not sure it’s the sort of economics the country is having trouble with (I sense not so much), but even still I figure there will be connections I can make between the two.
I once read a magazine article about the stock market. I can’t remember which magazine published it, but Rolling Stone is my first guess. The article was about a coming market related to either bulls or bears, whichever is worse, and it parsed the market itself as a sort of nebulous popularity contest. It vaguely connected being a popular stock like Apple or Google or Microsoft (though this was in the days before Google, I believe) to being the popular kid in school, and made the analogy that such popularity was a sort of currency, which was why people traded and bartered it. Why people believed that something so ethereal as a small stake in a zero and a one could be worth actual cash money.
I remember enjoying the article immensely even if I didn’t really understand it. Like I’ve never understood economics, and like I certainly don’t understand what’s going on right now. I guess maybe I really am Joe Sixpack even though my drink of choice is a Smirnoff mixer or a nice glass of wine. But when I open up Yahoo! and its finance page tells me every damned time that the Dow has dropped another twenty points since the last time it piddled itself, and I know that’s bad. I know, vaguely, what it means that it dropped in points, but in real world terms?
Not a damned clue.
What I do think I vaguely understand is that right now everyone seems to want to sell! sell! sell! because they’ve suddenly realized that their stock certificates aren’t actually worth the paper on which their printed, but they can’t sell! sell! sell! because nobody wants to buy right now. Not when banks are quite literally shuttering their doors every day. And because everyone wants to rid themselves of their stocks, everyone else is panicking to get rid of theirs. It’s like dominoes, or something.
Or, well, that’s my rudimentary understanding of it, anyway. It’s probably rather wrong. I wouldn’t quote me on it.
But what I do understand is consumerism. Stores are worrying because customers aren’t buying much. Wal-Mart started their Christmas season a month ago, slashing prices drastically, in the hope of luring some easy cash from consumers’ pockets. But consumers aren’t buying like they used to. No one’s buying plasma televisions or high end sound systems or thousand count bedsheets. Car dealerships aren’t giving out loans, which means people aren’t buying new Hummer H2s . . .
And we think this is a bad thing?
In Dressed to Kill, Eddie Izzard pointed out that America was the new Roman Empire, and while I don’t really know about that either way, as Mark Twain once noted, history doesn’t repeat itself, but it sure does echo. Certainly we have lived in excess of our needs. Parents drive their children to soccer games in vehicles literally designed for surface combat in land wars, and we pay more for a ‘venti’ cup of coffee than for an entire gallon of gasoline, and people are surprised that the economy is in the toilet?
Shouldn’t we somewhat more surprised this didn’t happen years ago?
I know I’ve done it, and I think what’s surprised me most about the past few weeks is not that it’s happening but that it took so damned long to catch up to me. I got easy credit cards during my twenties, and I maxed them right out. I went to Berlin and ate out and did all the damned fool things you might expect a fool like me to do, and I know well the repercussions. I’m going through my own personal economic crisis in many ways, but you know, when I consider it, I’m kinda like: “Well, I kinda fucking deserve it, don’t I?” Because I kinda fucking do. I’ve been as guilty as the next guy, if not more so, in feeling my life with shit I just don’t need.
When I was in my teens, I went through a phase of collecting baseball hats. I had one for the Mariners and the Orioles and the Lightning, and then various other ones. Just for the heck of it. I would ask for hats for my birthday and for Christmas, and finally one day I inspired my mother to ask: “Jesus, William, just how many heads do you have?”
I look around at some of the stuff in my life and wonder similarly. How many boxes of books can one person plan to read (because Lord knows I haven’t actually read most of them). Am I really ever going to finish any Fitzgerald novel besides The Great Gatsby, or Joyce’s Ulysses, for that matter? I read the end of it with John Rechy in a class at USC, and I’ve since picked it up and read part of the beginning, but thirty pages in and it still doesn’t feel like it’s going anywhere and I can’t imagine why I’m still trying. Some things I can’t get rid of, like the dreamcatcher I bought at a fair in Pennsylvania when I was boy scout camping when I was, like, sixteen, but some of the other stuff I own I look at and wonder: “Um. Zuh?”
I guess I just feel cluttered. And at the moment, I look around at all the shit I own that I just don’t need and it makes me cringe a little bit. I’ve always liked the idea of living essentially, and boyhow have I failed miserably in that endeavour recently.
So I’ve decided: out it goes. If I look at any one thing and can’t think of a good reason to keep it besides that I already own it: done.
And I’m hoping that I’ll get better. I’m trying hard to keep purchases to essentials.
I’d like to see the same thing happen on a larger level. I liked that Barack Obama mentioned responsibility in the other night’s debate, that he noted we all have to contribute. I wanted him to say “It’s time to give up our SUVs we don’t need and gas we rely on too heavily. It’s time to look at our lives and decide what we really need.”
Like, for instance, concerning the bailout. Will Shetterly blogs occasionally about essential living (among lots of other awesome topics), and it was through his blog that I discovered What $700 billion could have bought if the administration hadn’t decided to put it in the banks. On that list:
• Covering health care costs plus out-of-pocket medical expenses for all of America’s uninsured: $100 billion
• Universal preschool: $35 billion
• Rebuilding New Orleans: $100 billion
• Free college education for everyone: $50 billion
• Total energy independence for the United States, with a shift to renewables within the next ten years: $500 billion
And okay, that actually seems to equal $785 billion, if I’m not mistaken (and I may well be. I often am, but hey, I’m a writer), but I still like the point it bears out. Because Wall Street gets an influx of cash with which to save itself and continues to plummet by the day, but millions of Americans have been uninsured for years, and New Orleans is still waterlogged years after Katrina.
And yes, I’m totally going to admit I’m batshit jealous of Wall Street, because they get, quite literally, metric tons of cash to bail themselves out, but I don’t get any forgiveness on student loans whatsoever.
One of the things I think Starbucks has realized is that it, as a company, is only so good as its employees are happy. It gives benefits, including health insurance, even to part-time employees, and their satisfaction translates to good customer service. And I bring this up because I think one of the major problems right now is that America has forgotten its citizens and their happiness. It has invested too much time and money in foreign endeavours. We spend $10 billion per month in Iraq, but if we applied the same amount of money here, we could have universal health care in less than a year.
To answer my own question: I know we need to ‘save’ the economy. I know it’s going to get worse before it gets any better, but I also know it will get better. That’s what the economy does; it swings and slides, shakes all over like a jellyfish (but is not nearly so much fun as a crazy little thing called love), and really it’s only stable in its instability, constant in its change.
But I would like to think that, when we finally begin the hopefully inevitable upswing, we will learn some lessons, some of which will be hard, about where we ended up and how we got there.